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USF self-defense class prepares students for harsh realities

Sgt. Charlotte Domingo, left, instructs Jillian Donohue, 20, during a simulated attack in the USF self-defense class.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Sgt. Charlotte Domingo, left, instructs Jillian Donohue, 20, during a simulated attack in the USF self-defense class.

TAMPA — She stood alone in a dark alley when men's voices came out of nowhere, whispering in her ear.

Hey girl.

She screamed, "Go away!"

Where you going, girl?

She felt a knife at the small of her back and threw her hands up. "Okay, okay!" she said. "I'll do whatever you say!"

But with a twist of her body and quick jab and grab, the knife flew out of reach.

Then, from a few feet away, a cheer.

"Yeah!" screamed Sgt. Charlotte Domingo, pumping her fist. "Kick him in the groin!"

Welcome to the final exam of Domingo's semester-long self-defense class at the University of South Florida. The dark alley simulation offered the 25 female students a chance to show what they've learned over the past 15 weeks, in a little trailer behind USF's police department.

And though the mood was festive on Wednesday, with students cheering one another on from the sidelines ("Let him have it!"), Domingo's message is somber:

Outside, this is real.

• • •

Boy meets girl, boy beats up girl.

For about 20 years, Domingo showed up for the end of this story. As an on-campus police officer, she made arrests and filed reports when the damage was already done — after girls had been raped or after their boyfriends had slapped them around.

"At the time, I didn't have anything but advice to offer," Domingo says.

She felt helpless.

Then she found a way to be there before any punches were thrown, as an instructor for USF's long-standing self-defense class.

Unlike other universities, USF offers its student defense class as a physical education course for college credit. It teaches the most petite women to disarm men several times their size. They practice head throws and hammer fists and sweep kicks.

Domingo coaches. When she gives a command, they snap into action.

"Defensive stance!" she shouts.

They jerk into a boxing crouch, one hand protecting their face and the other ready to strike. Then they scream the most important word they've learned, "NO!"

Sometimes, Domingo says, that's all it takes.

"Students do come back and tell us they were in a violent situation and were able to escape," Domingo said. "But a lot of times students say, 'I was out the other night, and I remember what you said in that lecture, and I made sure it never got to that point.' "

Either way, they'll be ready.

• • •

The girls stood to the side of a big blue mat, suiting up in puffy vests and helmets. They went over moves with each other and talked through different scenarios: What to do if he gets you in a headlock, what to do if he's got a gun.

A closet door opened and out walked four huge police officers, looking like Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots in their protective suits.

Go time.

One by one, the students entered the ring — pretending to walk down the sidewalk, pretending to be in a dark alley, waiting to be attacked.

And then, action.

An officer grabbed a woman's arm, and she wriggled out of it, socking him in the nose. Another put a student in a bear hug, and she head-butted him before slamming him to the ground. Domingo clapped furiously. "Take him down!"

The other students whooped and hollered as each ran to safety.

There's Lauren Webber, a senior who stumbled upon this class and now tells everyone she knows about it.

And Insiya Ezzi, a freshman who now feels safer than she ever has.

And Elizabeth Moschella, a sophomore who was date-raped by a guy at a party last year. "I never thought it would happen to me," she says.

They cheered and cheered until it was over. Then they gathered their things, left the classroom and went outside.

Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@tampabay.com or 813-226-3337.

USF self-defense class prepares students for harsh realities 12/03/11 [Last modified: Saturday, December 3, 2011 11:19pm]
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